Preface by Anne-Marie
I’m delighted to introduce you to Dr. Leilani Sáez. An educational researcher and former classroom teacher, Dr. Sáez knows how tough it can be to reach kids with working memory weaknesses.
Leilani Sáez is an educational psychologist currently working as a research associate at Behavioral Research & Teaching (BRT), a research center at the University of Oregon. Her research focuses on the early identification of learning difficulties, and the development and use of assessments designed to guide instruction and learning. In particular, she is interested in clarifying how working memory processing impacts learning. Dr. Sáez has 20 years of experience in school settings, including as a teacher of students with learning disabilities, as a university learning specialist, and a preK-12 researcher. She presents her work at national conferences and writes research articles and book chapters about reading, working memory, learning disabilities, and measurement.
You’re in for a treat today as she demystifies one of the most common challenges educators and parents face – helping kids to follow multi-step directions.
My favorite part? Her powerful and practical three-step toolkit for supporting children.
Have you ever wondered why your student or child doesn’t follow directions well?
Although it may seem as if everyone should be able to follow directions, many children and adults with learning difficulties silently struggle to follow more than one step.
Have you ever seen a blank stare or frozen hesitation from a student after delivering a set of directions? As a parent or teacher, you may have questioned whether you were being understood. But perhaps you didn’t give much thought to the mental complexity involved in your request.
Multi-step directions are cognitively demanding, and their successful completion requires the use of a particular process called working memory. Of course there are other prerequisites (like motivation), but that’s another blog post entirely. In this article, we’ll focus on the role of working memory because it is crucial for completing day-to-day tasks and frequently goes unnoticed. Let me explain.
Successfully following multi-step directions entails the completion of a set of procedures to accomplish a goal. This requires working memory.
Multi-step directions and their goals can take many forms:
At home, goals may include preparing a meal, getting ready for school, or cleaning the bathroom. All of these activities involve multiple steps that need to be performed in order to accomplish the goal. A breakdown in following these steps may mean:
- The bathroom mirror doesn’t get cleaned
- Teeth don’t get brushed, or
- An important dessert ingredient gets missed.
In school, goals may include academic exercises or daily routines. For example, completing a long division problem has multiple steps – any one of which might be forgotten.
Elementary school routines often contain multiple steps, which challenge working memory. Jobs like hanging coats, placing lunch boxes in an assigned location, or sitting quietly until school begins can be challenging working memory tasks. Students with working memory challenges may appear forgetful or disobedient because they fail to complete some of these steps.
Children and adults with processing-related learning difficulties are especially prone to missing steps when following multi-step directions. Both the goal and the steps need to be kept in mind at the same time.
This can be can be “brain-draining.” Consider what the brain has to do in order to follow a set of multi-step directions:
- Pay attention to the directions as they are given.
- Hold on to the goal as tasks are completed.
- Hold on to the details of each task as it is completed.
For example, a multi-step task like taking out the trash requires remembering the ultimate goal while completing the individual steps. Working memory guides us through the mental juggling of these steps, such as checking for trash in other areas, closing the full trash bag to avoid spills, tossing the full bag into an outside container, or bringing out a new replacement bag.
In psychology circles, working memory is sometimes referred to as a “spotlight of retrieval”1 because when we engage in a complex task (like following multi-step directions) we need the ability to retrieve information from memory.
Some memories have very clear paths for retrieval. Other memories are overly connected and cluttered. As an example, remembering what you did yesterday is an easy task, but remembering what you did months ago could be challenging.
This is why we need a “spotlight” to bring to our attention the information we specifically need and not a “lamp,” which would illuminate too much information.
Working memory helps us accomplish goals and their multiple steps by “shining a spotlight” on the most critical pieces of information.
In order to compensate for a limited store of mental resources for processing 2,3 what we see, hear, smell, taste, and imagine, we constantly switch our attention (or our “spotlight”) between multiple bits of information.
Strong working memory overcomes this limited processing capacity by efficiently switching our attention between the goal and each step as needed until the goal is reached.
Thus, the strength of our working memory directly impacts how well we can follow directions.
Supporting Students With Weak Working Memory
Some children struggle with weak working memory because of other processing difficulties that strain the majority of their available mental resources.
For example, reading a list requires word recognition processes. If a student struggles with word recognition, this may impact working memory.
For other students, weak working memory is the primary problem. For these individuals, although working memory improves with age4, following multi-step directions may remain a life-long challenge because poor working memory is not outgrown5. However, it can be compensated for with adequate supports and good habits.
No matter the reason for weak working memory, you can use these tools to better support students who struggle with multi-step activities:
- Write multi-step directions down and devise a system for keeping track of progress6 while completing the task. This provides a written scaffold (or “external support”) so that the need to rely solely on working memory for processing is minimized7. Looking at written directions helps update processing without the working memory “cost” associated with retrieving each step. In addition, create signals for tracking progress that keep the focus on the next step in order to accomplish the goal. These visual cues tell the brain what no longer needs attention, thus lightening the mental load. For example, when teaching students how to complete a list of tasks:
- Write down the steps.
- Show the child how to strategically hold the list so that his/her thumb is always pointing to the next step.
- Practice moving the thumb down the list as steps are completed, providing a discreet point of reference when identifying the next step.
- Have students mark completed steps by crossing-off or making checkmarks.
- Visually “chunk” or lump together related steps. Related information is easier to mentally access than unrelated information8. Strategically organizing steps can reduce the unnecessary cognitive burden that undermines working memory processing and makes performance and learning less efficient9. It also makes remembering easier10. For example:
- When developing routines for entering the home or classroom, efficiently sequence steps in order of location after walking through the door. If hanging the coat is not something that can be done immediately after walking through the doorway, don’t make it the first step.
- Use (lots of) white space on worksheets between different problems, steps, or types of items to visually separate them. This helps the brain visually distinguish between different things to process, reducing the mental burden.
To see these principles in action, you can click the images below to download two free templates:
- Break down multiple steps with checkpoints to clarify what is good performance11. Adding checkpoints ensures that the steps were successfully completed, and also helps the child understand what to do next. These checkpoints also provide re-direction for managing mind-wandering and distractibility associated with poor working memory12. For example:
- If a recipe has six steps, encourage the child to do 2-3 steps of the recipe on his/her own. Instruct the student to check in with you before continuing.
- When completing a multi-step problem, have the student complete 1-2 steps and check to make sure they were completed correctly before continuing. Do this repeatedly for multiple problems until solving all parts of the problem becomes a more fluent habit. Then fade back help as necessary.
The key to supporting students who struggle to follow multi-step directions is to recognize and accept when and how support is needed.
Strong, well-structured support is needed when learning new skills or habits. Once tasks become more routine, performance will improve as strategies beyond working memory processing13 are used to remember what to do in the moment.
As a parent or teacher, be sure that the directions you give are specific.
Can each step be individually listed?
Be sure the directions you give are clear.
Can a stranger follow them?
And make sure your directions are measurable.
Can progress be observed by anyone watching?
When children struggle to follow multi-step directions, everyone loses.
Frustrations mount, and more insidiously, negative attitudes can begin to frame both the adult’s and child’s perceptions of capability. Pretty soon, the child may be seen (or internalize him/herself) as lazy, disobedient, or dumb, when in fact there is an “invisible” constraint at work.
The presence of learning difficulties already indicates a brain hard at work. By making the invisible more visible, we can have greater success helping children with working memory processing difficulties reach their goals, both large and small.
1 Rohrer, D., Pashler, H., & Etchegaray, J. (1998). When two memories can and cannot be retrieved concurrently. Memory & Cognition, 26, 731-739.
Click to access art%253A10.3758%252FBF03211393.pdf
2 Barrouillet, P., Bernardin, S., & Camos, V. (2004). Time constraints and resource sharing in adults’ working memory spans. Journal of Educational Psychology: General, 133, 1, 83-100.
3 Posner, M. I., Snyder, C. R., & Davidson, B. J. (1980). Attention and the detection of signals. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 109, 2, 160-174.
Click to access posner%201980.pdf
4 Gathercole, S. E., Pickering, S. J., Ambridge, B., & Wearing, H. (2004). The structure of working memory from 4 to 15 years of age. Developmental Psychology, 40, 2, 177-190.
5 Swanson, H. L. (2003). Age-related differences in learning disabled and skilled readers’ working memory. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 85, 1, 1-31.
6 Clark, R., Nguyen, F., & Sweller, J. (2006). Efficiency in learning: Evidence-based guidelines to manage cognitive load. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.
7 Gathercole, S. E., Lamont, E., & Alloway, T. P. (2006). Working memory in the classroom. In S. J. Pickering (Ed.), Working memory and education (pp.219-240). London, UK: Academic Press.
8 Anderson, J. R. (1990). Cognitive psychology and its implications (3rd ed). New York, New York: W. H. Freeman.
9 Clark, R., Nguyen, F., & Sweller, J. (2006). Efficiency in learning: Evidence-based guidelines to manage cognitive load. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.
10 Mastropieri, M. A., & Scruggs, T. E. (1998). Enhancing school success with mnemonic strategies. Intervention in School and Clinic, 33(4), 201-208.
Click to access Mastropieri_Scruggs_Mnemonic%20Strategies.pdf
11 Nicol, D. J., & Macfarlane‐Dick, D. (2006). Formative assessment and self‐regulated learning: A model and seven principles of good feedback practice. Studies in Higher Education, 31(2), 199-218.
Click to access nicol_formass.pdf
12 Alloway, T. P., Gathercole, S. E., Kirkwood, H., & Elliott, J. (2009). The cognitive and behavioral characteristics of children with low working memory. Child development, 80 (2), 606-621.
13 Anderson, J. R. (1995). Learning and memory: An integrated approach. New York, New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Boy In Spotlight – “spotlight” is copyright (c) 2010 nicoleec and made available under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode. Changes were made to this image.
Lost Teddy Bear – “lost, forgotten & ignored” is copyright (c) 2013 Flowizm and made available under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode. Changes were made to this image.
Shopping List – “Found At Ralphs” is copyright (c) 2007 Karen and made available under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode. Changes were made to this image.
46 Replies to “The Hidden Reason Why Some Kids Can’t Follow Your Directions”
This is wonderful material. I want parents to read this!
We’re so glad you enjoyed the article. I know Dr. Saez and I have talked about how driven she feels that this information is shared widely with educators and parents!
BHartman- Thanks for your comment! I want parents to read it, too! The ability to successfully manage daily routines (with all the inherently complex multi-step demands) is so often taken for granted, except among those who wrestle with it regularly. I hope more people can become aware of this difficulty, even if it’s not their challenge.
This was sent to me with perfect timing. I just got a new student in class with a learning process delay and I have been trying to figure out how to help him understand directions better!
Melissa, that’s fantastic about the timing! I love how Leilani wraps up her article and it seems like the perfect fit for you and your new student: “The presence of learning difficulties already indicates a brain hard at work. By making the invisible more visible, we can have greater success helping children with working memory processing difficulties reach their goals, both large and small.”
Melissa–I’m so glad you found this post useful! Hopefully, you’ll be able to use the ideas as a starting point for effectively working with your student. We’d love to hear how things progress as you individualize your approach for helping him.
Mandatory reading for all parents of ADHD kids. I will forward this not only to our teachers but I have found your blog to be so informative in all aspects I feel it should be on the list of recommendations our Pediatric Specialist publishes when she gives “helps and strategies” for newly diagnosed patients. Thank you isn’t really enough but thank you!
Wendy– Thanks for your comment! I hope these hidden memory & attention influences will continue to be considered and give us reason to think about what we ask of kids (and whether they have sufficient internal and external support to ensure the success we expect).
Thank you, Wendy! I’m so glad you’re forwarding this to some other teachers. I really feel for so many of these kids that are seen as lazy or contrary — let’s get the word out.
The “spotlight of retrieval” reference made me think of an outline with the heading and details that fall follow (I am a visual print learner- I think in words). Then having to switch between SORs for multiple step directions just got that much harder. It’s like you have to have a pull down menu for each step. Good grief?!
Thank you for helping me have a better understanding of what our students face with multiple step directions and ways to support them.
Yes, all teachers and parents need to read this article.
Have a great day,
Jo Ann Wright
Jo Ann– I completely agree with you about the demands of an outline (and then how thinking about that could lead you astray in your reading)! The idea of a pull-down menu made me laugh because I could see it AND the grief so clearly. 🙂
Thank YOU for sharing such an insightful response.
Great analogy, Jo Ann! I can picture it perfectly.
Dr. Saez takes a complex, invisible process and breaks it down clearly. I love the vivid examples, especially the tasks that adults have “automated” to the point of not realizing that they had to be learned (like taking out the trash) and thus, could give children trouble. I still remember how bad the brownies tasted when, as a middle-schooler, I mistook the salt for the sugar and didn’t think to taste the batter.
Claire, thanks so much for sharing your insights. I absolutely agree — once you start thinking about everyday and academic tasks from the lens of working memory, it can really change your perception. Just the other day, I was doing laundry, made it down three flights of stairs before I realized I didn’t have quarters. Oops — there goes the working memory.
Thanks, Claire, for your comment! I appreciate knowing that you were able to “see” this issue so plainly. Yes, these forgetful moments may seem insignificant, but have the potential to accumulate in profound ways– dots over time that we adults often don’t connect.
Hi, I am a parent of a 10 year old daughter who greatly struggles with working memory. It is most evident with math-facts, as it is painful to see the great difficulty she has. This is a tremendous resource, as it will be a goal for me to utilize this information to help her improve her working memory.
Thank you for sharing!
Tammy — I’m glad you found Leilani’s article helpful. For kids who have working memory math-fact challenges related to working memory, I really like Jo Boaler’s recommendations. She has some wonderful suggestions to help kids minimize worry and maximize creative problem solving to learn their math facts. Her tools have been very helpful for many of my students.
Hi, Tammy- I’m glad to hear that this article was helpful! Your daughter is at such a critical age… for many children who struggle with WM, new ways of compensating and coping become necessary at her age because of increased academic demands made in later elementary (the challenges become more apparent). How fortunate she is to have you as a parent, already thinking about how best to support her! Is the math facts difficulty you mentioned based on the problem of becoming fluent? Or is it something else?
Thank you so very much for your wonderful resources that you sent. I am going to be the art-teacher of my daughter’s school next year at Preston Hollow Presbyterian School for LD in Dallas, Tx. My daughter has been there since 1st grade. I have passed your information on to some of the teachers as well as the director hoping to share some of your resources with the staff. I love your site and excited to have been referred to you by Learning Ally. I have 2 children with dyslexia and executive function differences and am very active in providing additional support outside the classroom.
Thank you again and let us know if you are ever in Dallas as would love to have you visit the school.
Tammy — thank you so much for the invitation! Next time I’m in Texas, I’ll be sure to look you up 🙂 I want echo what Leilani said about your daughter being so fortunate to have you as a parent. Best of luck with your new teaching job.
While reading this it suddenly hit me why my daughter with WM problems can’t handle any of her routine being out of order. She always wants to do everything the same every day because that is the way her brain is used to doing it. Thank you!
Thank you, Kelli, for sharing your reaction to the blog! I’m so glad it was able to help you make connections about your daughter!!
Kelli — I’m so glad Leilani’s article was helpful. I love those light-bulb moments!
Thank you! Thank you! I am a parent and found this information to be very useful and practical. I love that you included some sample checklists. I want to make sure that my daughter can have the necessary skills to manage herself and not rely on others to keep her organized. The information provided will help to provide understanding (for herself and others), patience, and build confidence.
Sabrina, I’m so glad you found Leilani’s article so useful. It’s empowering to know that the right tools can help kids achieve independence. Have you read the Checklist Manifesto? If you find checklists helpful, I think you’ll love the book.
Thank YOU, Sabrina, for taking the time to respond about the article. I love that you found the information relevant for understanding and helping your daughter–exactly what I was hoping for as an author. As a parent, I share the same desire to help teach our children self-regulation. 🙂
I asked to have my daughter evaluated at the school but they won’t because she has good grades. She can’t follow 3 step directions regularly (when we play a game involving listening and doing it) and she’s 7 in the 2nd grade. Her speech therapist gave us these exercises to do but I wonder what your opinion is on her being age 7 and not able to reliably follow three-step directions, and what else I should be doing besides working on these with her.
That sounds like a pickle, Debra. I’m sure Dr. Saez can provide some more specific information about your daughter’s age and ability to follow directions. Might I recommend checking out the information from Understood.org on seeking services from the school district.
Hi, Debra- Your concern makes a lot of sense. Although some individuals recommend “computerized brain training” to improve working memory, I don’t because we lack strong evidence that positive training effects actually improve everyday functioning. Instead, I advocate for building supports & strategies to manage the condition and reduce the likelihood of processing getting overwhelmed.
Poor working memory can be identified in children even younger than 7, and know that working memory capacity improves with development. If your daughter continues to have difficulty with multi-step demands in her schooling and life, neuropsychological testing will be your best bet for identifying a working memory impairment and how best to help her. It’s not uncommon for some students to be able to compensate for poor working memory and maintain good grades early in school, particularly if they enter school with strong academic skills and behaviors. Where they run into trouble is during later elementary and middle school, when the learning expectations (and the amount of information that has to be concurrently processed) exceed their ability to compensate. I am happy to talk further with you about this offline. If your daughter does have a working memory impairment, there are no easy fixes (there’s still a lot to be learned about this condition), but there are some practical strategies you can implement to help her better manage the difficulties she is likely to encounter regularly. BTW, the exercises from your ST will likely strengthen your daughter’s attention, which is a good place to start because working memory and attention are related. I’m glad you wrote!
Is it possible to be good at maths, spelling a good reader and organised (my six year old son reminds me what to do) and yet still not be able to remember multi-step instructions? My son cannot eg repeat “blue car, yellow bus and red taxi” and he is having difficulties at school because he does not appear engaged. The teacher is concerned he either doesn’t care or something else is going on. Wben he was younger, he would talk back to front like Master Yoda!
Daniela, Dr. Leilani can speak more specifically to your question. I’d chime in that it sounds like there are some big discrepancies between your son’s strengths and weaknesses. For me, that often suggests that there is some sort of learning glitch. When we can identify a learning glitch, we can equip a student with specific skills and strategies, so s/he can continue to find success. Does your school have a speech-language pathologist (SLP)? A screening with that person might be very, very helpful. Perhaps starting with auditory working memory…. I’m extremely reluctant to say that a six-year-old “doesn’t care.”
Hi, Daniela- Thanks for writing! You raise really good questions! A number of factors may be at play in your son’s situation (e.g., attention and motivation, to name only 2). For example, the inability to repeat back the list of words may be due to weak attention and/or motivation, which can also help to explain low classroom engagement. I am really curious about the Yoda- speak example because the intention behind it may reveal a lot about working memory (WM). IF your son intentionally spoke backwards like Yoda, that would suggest he has adequate WM (because it requires one to consciously manipulate the order of spoken words). IF, however, your son unintentionally spoke like Yoda, it would suggest weak WM and the struggle to hold words in correct sequential order. I’ve seen both! How he reacted to the ability to talk like Yoda- with pride, embarrassment, or indifference (because he didn’t even notice it!)- can help to reveal the intention behind it. As for the strong academic skills- yes, if a child is bright and began school with a solid academic foundation, it is possible for him/her to early on demonstrate strong basic skills, despite poor WM, and later struggle in school as the skills become more complex. I hope this helps to clarify some of the possibilities in your situation.
Hi dear Dr
I would like to know that there is any executive function protocol?
with the best regards
Harvard’s Center on the Developing Mind has a useful activity guide for developing executive functions for children 6-months to adolescence.
Hi, Fatima- By “executive function protocol” do you mean assessment/tests OR instructional activities? Executive functioning (EF) is a multi-dimensional ability, so although a variety of good assessments exist, there is currently less evidence to show that training programs improve EF in the ways that we might expect.
If you’re interested in instructional protocols, you may want to consider how instructional supports (teacher, environment, curriculum) can be modified to reduce students’ cognitive load burdens to make EF more effective. It’s a different way to see “the problem”: Rather than seeking to enhance students’ EF through instruction/training (because of the tendency for limited training effects), an alternative approach is to enhance the conditions under which students learn (by altering the 3 types of instructional supports). I hope this makes sense, and I’d be happy to talk with you further about this approach if you’d like more information.
Easy to understand information!! Thank you for using plain language and for the wonderful tips! Going to refer back to this often with my ADHD son.
Cheryl, I’m so glad you found the article helpful. That’s why we’re here!
Cheryl, thanks for letting us know the information was helpful!
Thank you for this article. I am an adult with this very struggle. I have always had this problem, and while I have overcome the challenges of performing steps, your statement that adults never outgrow the problem is so encouraging. I find when I am rushed or stressed, I tend to make more mistakes and omit steps than when I have enough time to process and review. I know my limitations, but still, it is a daily and lifelong struggle to do what most people consider easy. Thank you again!
Thank you so much for sharing your experience.
Carol- I really appreciate that you wrote and so eloquently shared your experience from an adult’s perspective. Your comment abut WM challenges being “a daily and lifelong struggle to do what most people consider easy” is exactly why I wrote this article because it’s often hidden, misunderstood, or dismissed and yet very real and present. You’re very welcome and I thank YOU for reaching out. 🙂
This material is wonderful! I have been so frustrated with helping my daughter because it is like starting over ever time we revisit a multi-step math skill. Especially addition and subtraction with regrouping, she knows how to do it but mixes the steps up between the two every time. This is only one example, but your material has helped me to realize what the underlying problem may be. Thank you so much for sharing your research and strategies.
Lynn- I’m so glad to hear that this article was helpful! Your observation about “starting over” with math make a lot of sense- as the adult (whether parent, teacher, or specialist), it can certainly feel like little progress has made. And it’s frustrating- to both the adult and learner- so uncovering what can’t be seen (the mental processing involved) changes the perspective a bit. Thank YOU for taking the time to understand this “invisible” challenge!!
Hello! Thank you for this article and now I am interested in reading more of what you have to offer. My son is 10. He recently had a teacher suggest to me that he has aspbergers. Really I believe it could just be a working brain issue. He has such a hard time following directions or even trying to get out the door in the morning it breaks my heart. It continues on to school with the same problems. Any suggestions of where to go to get to the bottom of what my sweet son may have going on?
This is a great resource for parents and teachers. My son has Autism and ADHD and we have recently discovered that there are Executive Function issues and discovered that he has an SLD in writing. He is entering 7th grade in the Fall, and I am trying to prepare him for it. this gives me a ton of hope moving forward and it is truly validating that all of my concerns have a “real” name not just crazy momma rambles!
Thank you for this interesting post. I’m a 55 year old woman that has a very hard time focusing on both creating and following task lists and directions. I’m going to use some of your tricks to try out on myself and see if I can improve a little.